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Originally published Friday, December 7, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

A thorough meditation on Transcendentalism

In "American Transcendentalism," a new history of generous scope and considerable depth, Philip F. Gura illuminates a broad panoply of intriguing characters who contributed to this movement.

Special to The Seattle Times

"American Transcendentalism"

by Philip F. Gura

Hill and Wang, 365 pp., $27.50

Intellectual ferment and social turmoil characterized America in the mid-19th century. Transcendentalism, an intentionally nebulous philosophy that asserted the primacy of individual consciousness over the material world, was such a movement, one that continues to shape American ideals today more than a century after its most eloquent proponents have passed on. Civil disobedience, self-reliance, environmental activism — these bear the hallmarks of Transcendentalism.

Many of us are familiar with the names of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. But in "American Transcendentalism," a new history of generous scope and considerable depth, Philip F. Gura illuminates a much broader panoply of intriguing characters who contributed to this movement.

There was George Ripley, whose dreams of a utopian farm were snuffed when the edifice meant to house hundreds of commune members burned to the ground. And Franklin Sanborn, who absconded to Canada after helping bankroll John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. If nearly forgotten now, these and other Transcendentalists are well-documented nonetheless, thanks to the literary fervor of their time.

More than 30 pages of footnotes at the back of this book attest that Gura had no shortage of pamphlets, diaries, sermons, letters, literary magazines and books to plumb. Beyond the written word, that generation's enthusiasm for extended conversations, debates and oratories is difficult perhaps for us to comprehend in our sound-bite world. These individuals' unique takes on Transcendentalism, and their energetic participation in the intellectual discourse of the era, contributed to a milieu that produced literary and philosophical contributions that stand the test of time.

Then, as now, any attempt to define Transcendentalism proved to be confounding. There seemed to be a unique brand of Transcendentalism for every Transcendentalist. Certainly the movement encouraged people to reexamine their beliefs and compelled each person to ensure that his or her "mind had become aware of itself," as Emerson urged.

Not surprisingly, outcomes varied: Some devotees were led to biblical exegesis, others to utopian experiments, still others to abolitionist activism. In Transcendentalism, there was always tension between individualism and social idealism.

Gura, a professor of American and religious studies at the University of North Carolina, recounts in detail the influences that framed Transcendentalism. The movement did not spring full-blown from the stony soil of New England. Inspiration came from across the Atlantic — the works of German, French and English thinkers had a profound influence when America sent her best and brightest to the Continent to round out their educations.

Back in America, these ideas were regularly disseminated and discussed: in bookstores and churches in Boston; just across the Charles River at Harvard Divinity School; and a short train ride away where, in "what is popularly believed to be the hot-bed of genius" (as "Little Women" author Louisa May Alcott, daughter of philosopher Bronson Alcott, once quipped), Emerson, Thoreau, the Alcotts and Nathaniel Hawthorne lived in the picturesque village of Concord.

While that may have been the hub of the Transcendentalist universe, there were like-minded thinkers, too, in Maine and New York, Ohio and Missouri, and Gura reports on them all.

"American Transcendentalism" is a densely packed and inclusive account of an essential strand of American literary and philosophical history. This makes the conclusion Gura seems to point to all the more disquieting: that a movement originally based on "the sanctity of each individual's heart" gradually has led to a cultural shift in which self-seeking has been replaced by self-interest, and has been perverted further into an American brand of "exceptionalism" that may not serve us well as we deal with one another and the rest of the world today.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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